University at Buffalo scientists have developed a new way to track the origin of 3D printed items by identifying the ‘ThermoTag‘ of 3D printing machines.
Alluding to a 3D printing machine’s extruder, Buffalo associate professor Zhanpeng Jin calls it a hidden ID for 3D printers akin to fingerprinting and watermarking.
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Each extruder’s hot end has its own unique heating properties and this impacts the precise way that the 3D model is constructed.
Identifying machines by their unique ‘hot end’ could help reduce the illicit use of 3D printers and also aid in national security and intellectual property rights.
Jin compares the new process to using a laptop to write a letter.
Because software exists that can track keystrokes, an observer can see every step that went into the letter, including the writer’s unique writing style.
Similarly, because of the unique properties of each 3D printer’s extruder, a researcher can examine the specific manner in which a 3D-printed object was made, and compare that to a database of various extruders until a match is made.
From there, once the model printer is identified, the purchaser of said model can be tracked down if they had, say, used the printer to build an illegal assault rifle.
Jin and his team discovered that, by examining and comparing the ThermoTag features of 45 different extruders of the same model, they were able to correctly identify the source printer with an accuracy rate of 92%.
“This ThermoTag will behave like the fingerprint of the 3D printer. When you print out a new product, you can use watermarking,” says Jin.
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The watermarking can also be used to invisibly embed such information as the printer’s manufacturer, label and serial number in the product.
Jin is aware that people could still replace their extruder to try to avoid detection. That’s why it’s important to create a database of these parts for comparison, he says.
Image and content: University at Buffalo